Back in the 1990s, the hip-hop soundtrack was an essential touchstone of the culture. Unknown acts were launched on them and marquee acts reserved some of their most beloved cuts for them. Entire soundtracks, for films both memorable and forgettable, are considered hip-hop classics today – Juice, The Great White Hype, Above the Rim, Menace II Society…I could go on.
But the internet and the ease with which we can access new music has made the rap soundtrack somewhat obsolete, which is why it was an exciting throwback of sorts that Kendrick Lamar was brought on as curator of the Black Panther soundtrack.
Lamar is arguably the greatest rap act of this generation, and his brand of politically charged music should have made him a perfect match for putting together the soundtrack of the most important Black film in years. Just about every track features him or a member of his imprint, Top Dawg Entertainment.
The results are, well, not as stellar as I’d like them to be.
The Dope Parts
The soundtrack definitely has its bright points: It kicks off with an eponymous track that serves as the only Lamar solo and includes a piano loop and lyrics that would fit well in the middle of a medley for his next major awards show performance. It then jumps into the anthemic “All The Stars,” the first single and the best cut on the soundtrack (the video should serve as sartorial inspiration for how you should show up to the theater this Friday.)
“Bloody Waters” with Ab-Soul and Anderson.Paak is great and features a totally random James Blake feature that just…works. “The Ways” with Khalid and Swae Lee (one half of Rae Sremmurd) would sound much better if I were riding down the Pacific Coast Highway with the windows down on a clear day and not enduring a blizzard in Chicago. Zacari’s “Redemption Interlude” is gorgeous until the beat switches and Lamar randomly says “Black Panther.” (Which he does throughout the project. A lot.)
That’s about the extent of the dopeness, and that’s only four actual songs out of 14 tracks. The rest ranges from “meh” to throwaway.
“Redemption” has a reggae beat that sounds like it fits better on a late-career Drake project. “Pray For Me” is a completely unmemorable song from The Weeknd with Lamar spitting the requisite-for-a-superhero-film-theme-song bars about needing a hero to fight the system. “Opps” is recycle bin material that makes me wonder about why Vince Staples is continuing in this mediocre techno direction with his music.
The soundtrack highlights one of Lamar’s only weaknesses: he puts together solid albums for himself but doesn’t do well as a guest artist, mainly because he seems less interested in crafting bars for other artists, instead choosing to ad-lib and sing hooks. “All The Stars” is excellent because of SZA’s soaring voice over the Soundwave production, and in spite of Lamar. “Big Shot,” a duet with Lamar and Kylie Jenner’s new baby daddy, is like one long-ass hook — a performance that’s beneath the rapper who put together To Pimp a Butterfly. Lamar is special precisely because he is better than trap rap, but he seems to be burning through a lot of capital he has for simply being “KENDRICK LAMAR.”
The Soundtrack’s Lyrics vs the Film’s Themes
There’s also an obvious dissonance with the themes of the film and many of the soundtrack’s lyrics. On “King’s Dead,” Future raps about smashing baby mamas in the penthouse and fellatio over a Mike Will Made It beat. Those lyrics don’t jibe with a film that portrays the physical and mental power of Black women unlike any film before it. “Paramedic!” has a dope beat, but Bay Area group SOB x RBE group delivers basic scumbag gangster bars over it, with Lamar repeating “I wish a nigga would, I wish a bitch would” over the hook.
I’m sure director Ryan Coogler, Marvel Studios (and Disney, by extension?) signed off on this whole soundtrack, which makes me wonder if they simply figured a Future verse was greater than the sum of all the other parts, regardless of what he had to say.
As excited as I am to see a Blackity-Black soundtrack accompany this unrepentantly Black-ass film that we’re all excited to see, I’m hoping the film itself is better than the soundtrack. Which, according to all indications, definitely seems to be the case.
Dustin J. Seibert is a native Detroiter living in Chicago. Miraculously, people have paid him to be aggressively light-skinned via a computer keyboard for nearly two decades. He loves his own mama slightly more than he loves music and exercises every day only so his French fry intake doesn’t catch up to him. Find him at his own site, wafflecolored.com.